Impressions . . .

Of the 1993 Parliament of the Worlds Religions

I went to this event with no expectations other than to experience a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of diversity. Indeed the people, ideas, and energy were diverse, stimulating, and intense. There was an openness of hearts that defied my ability to describe. There was no hint of "them versus us" or "our way is the right way."

I quickly learned to pace myself by attending only three or four presentations/workshops each day. This allowed me time to reflect and to integrate the wealth of new information, and experience it within. I freely participated in discussions and sensed that others were listening to one another, not trying to propose solutions — rather to have dialog, meaningful discussions, and respect for all! This sharing of ideas and principles in a positive and receptive manner was the most significant part of the conference. The truth soon became clear, that within the diversity were discovered the common dreams and aspirations that can be realized by the conscious action of will — the will to see others traveling towards the same goals and having the compassion to put aside personal selfishness for the good of the universe. There was an awareness that all that is, plants, animals, minerals, and humans, are interlinked. This is not new to my personal thinking; however, it was so gratifying to experience the vast numbers of others who share these beliefs.

Reflecting on the impact the Parliament has had on me, I know that in my daily life I have been more focused upon healing the earth's spirit through my actions and thoughts. This is a small step, albeit an extremely powerful one. — Gregory W. Hart

7,500 people registered for the Parliament. Seems like all of them were trying to pack into the 2,100-seat Grand Ballroom for the Opening Procession of leaders and dignitaries of the participating faith traditions. Not too much rudeness, pushing, or shoving — this is a gathering of goodwill, after all — but chaos, everywhere. The hotel and Parliament staffs were overwhelmed. Just too many people, details, arrangements — all at once.

After some hassles our press passes finally gained us entrance to the Ballroom (along with a judicious tip to the bellman) and we set up our video cameras. Just as the Procession was due to begin we discovered that the batteries had been left in our room. I was asked to brave the chaos to get them. Down from the balcony, pushing around the edge of the packed room, hurrying through the hot, steamy kitchen and up some stairs to emerge, disoriented, in a hallway I'd never been in before. Which direction to go to find an unpacked elevator? A right turn brought me to a room where dignitaries of the Western religions were waiting to take part in the Opening Procession. It seemed even more crowded than the Ballroom. There was an air of anxiety. Everyone seemed on edge. Making my way through that room was like struggling through a turbulent sea — lots of "excuse me," "beg your pardon," and general calling of the dignitaries' attention to my presence and need to get through. Gaining the other side, I entered another hallway, took a flight of stairs up to another overcrowded room —filled with representatives of the Oriental faiths. It was calm! My approach was acknowledged with slight, often quizzical smiles. People (they seemed to be that, rather than dignitaries) nodded kindly, immediately saw my need to pass through and easily made room. It was like floating through a warm tranquil pool with intelligent currents helping me on my way.

Was the difference simply cultural? Are Orientals simply more used to crowded, chaotic conditions and know how to behave better in them? I remembered looking into calm non-Oriental eyes in that room — mostly Occidentals with shaved heads who had taken up the robe and bowl of Buddhism. They, too, had been aware and helpful while they simply waited. Whatever the difference, it was palpable.

On entering the "West room" it seemed that my right turn was wrong. On leaving the "East room" it seemed that all turns are right, depending on how we negotiate them.

A service elevator in the next hallway took me to the batteries and I set out to return to the Ballroom. But my pace was lighter, easier. On coming to a crowd seeming to block the way, I simply paused and found an easy way around or through. No exertion or assertion was required. In fact, it would be counterproductive. Just find the flow and follow it.

Getting back to the Ballroom balcony was simple and I carried a practical insight along with the batteries — choose a path with your goal in mind and trust the journey to take you where you need to be. Now there was plenty of time before the Opening Procession began. — J. T. Coker

The "Biosphere" project in Arizona came to an end this September and the scientists, who spent the last two years enclosed in hermetically-sealed buildings, are once again home. The Parliament was a little like the Biosphere. For 10 days several thousand persons found themselves in the Palmer House, Chicago — enclosed within the gracious halls, corridors, and lecture rooms — imbibing heady words of inspiration sincerely offered by participants, many having spent nearly a lifetime in service to the religion of their choice.

The plethora of presentations made it difficult to choose what to attend after duties were done — time had to be allowed to think about and digest the words, before cramming in more data! Against this tapestry of multicultural people and ideas, what to say of it all?

In the Exhibit Hall 60 co-sponsors gave us the unique opportunity to find out about their particular faith. We could peruse at our leisure and ask questions of the exhibitors or pick up brochures and literature, often relieving us of misconceptions we might have had with regard to a this or that. Helping to staff the Theosophical University Press booth, I found the flow of inquiries and interaction always stimulating.

It was in the foyer, elevators, passages, that the full impact of the humanity that we are all a part of was felt. Seldom have I been in a place where so much cross-cultural variety was experienced at such close quarters. The goodwill and friendliness was palpable and lingers yet.

The world is being torn apart by wars — many fueled by religious strife. It is on this point that I feel the Parliament did not fulfill its potential. Most adherents to the many religions are convinced that they have found "The Truth," and wish to share it with others and convert them to their faith. I had hoped that there would be more interfaith dialogue so that the commonality within the core of the great religious traditions could be better recognized, thereby fostering a fraternal feeling to be carried home in our hearts, spilling over in our lives as we interact with others.

Yet the mingling of so many together with a common concern and dedication to the well-being of our planet and its peoples gave a benediction to a purpose that is dear to all of us. Everyone who was lucky enough to attend, and all who were there in spirit, cannot have gone unchanged. Even if the events fade in our memories as life continues, the reawakening and rededication, even just for a moment, to a peaceful coexistence with all — especially with those whom we may not see eye to eye with — must change the course of human affairs for the better. — Nhilde Davidson

My impressions of the Parliament were mixed. I think it was originally controlled by a group with a definite social agenda, and never quite escaped their influence. The end result was a mix of politics and spiritual teaching, but the speakers brought out much wisdom. One story of Swami Vivekananda especially caught my fancy:

A frog lived in a well which he could jump across and which he was very proud of. One day a frog from the sea came to visit.
"Is not my well the biggest body of water in the world?" asked the well frog.
"How can you compare the sea to this well?" asked the sea frog.
"Is it twice as big? Ten times as big?" asked the well frog.
"How can you compare the sea to this well?" asked the sea frog again.
Then the well frog flew into a rage. "Get out, you liar!"

He could not imagine something as big as the sea, so he said it was not real. This is like people who cannot imagine spiritual being and so say that none can exist.

I tried not to go to many theosophical meetings because all the religious groups were going to their own meetings. I went first to a Jain session called "The Jain Approach to Self-Realization." The presenter was hard to understand because of his accent, but he showed summaries on slides and the text was given out at the end. He talked about how the Jains seek self-realization in day-to-day life rather than concentrating only on spiritual theories. I thought the ideas were great, but I found the approach too methodical for me because I like to improvise more.

I liked the Neo-Pagans' philosophical approach because of its flexibility and basis in looking for wisdom from within and without. Though not all these groups are flexible, as a whole there is a great deal of difference of opinion and yet respect for others' truths being equal to one's own. The Neo-Pagans were not invited to the 1893 Parliament of Religions, and their presence this time was highly controversial: the Greek Orthodox Christians withdrew on that account.

I went to several groups whose philosophy I liked, but the truth was hidden in the rituals and hard to find in some cases. However, I learned a great deal. My favorite was the theosophical presentation on "Economics, Justice, Politics, and Responsibility." Both presenters managed to bring most of the audience into the discussion. One man from Bangladesh pointed out that the "First World" is always telling the "Third World" what it needs for aid. He thought that if you went straight to the people you were giving aid to, and asked them what they thought they needed, you would get more effective and cheaper solutions. There was quite a bit of debate on that, and at the end many agreed he was right. I brought up that a hundred people doing something small helps a lot more than one person doing something huge, and that point was fairly well received by the floor.

I really enjoyed going to the Parliament and hope to be able to go to the next one! Though it wasn't perfect, it was a good step forward in getting religions to acknowledge each other. — Catherine Dougherty, age 13

Differences: Different religions; different races; different languages; different customs. That was the outward appearance of the Parliament. Yet a dominant, pervasive feeling was one of similarities, an apparent and wonderful contradiction.

In the countless seminars, lectures, and events, each of the seemingly independent diverse groups put forth teaching and principles so similar in their core principle that differences disappeared and universality was the order of the day.

The brotherhood of man, the continuing quest and growth of the soul, the existence of order and balance in nature, and the knowledge of and faith in a higher power dwelling within all, were constantly expressed. Fundamental to each presentation was the concept of peace among earth's peoples — the brotherhood of all life.

It was a joy to see divisions and differences tumble as the pettiness of differences was exposed. Acknowledged as real, however, were the needs for differences to meet needs of differing times, places, and cultures, without there being a need for a difference in the fundamental principles. — Douglas A. Russell

What a superb idea to throw another Parliament-of-the-World's- Religions party in this century for thousands of diverse people, directed towards breaking down barriers of ignorance via a common understanding and acceptance of various belief systems. At some point in our development, our life story ought to encompass a sincere truth-search conducted in as unbiased and altruistic a manner as possible.

Experiencing the eloquence and simplicity of Robert Muller, Jean Houston, and the Dalai Lama — to name a few — was tremendously thought-provoking. Perhaps those who made the most lasting impressions were individuals encountered in the lobbies, hallways, elevators, on the street outside the Palmer House, and at the closing ceremonies in Grant Park. These people stay with me . . . the woman from the National Spiritualist Association with whom I spoke for quite a while. Some of our views differed, but this was inconsequential: we were sharing in a profound experience of joy and hopefulness. There was the French monk with a beautiful smile telling me about a lengthy conference in which he would soon be participating overseas, involving Moslem officials on issues of religion and politics, both areas of extreme instability. He hoped to help in a positive, non-impinging way.

The Dalai Lama stated that one universal belief system surely is impossible, in much the same way that just a single item on a restaurant menu would fail to satisfy everybody and keep the restaurant in business. There are countless varieties of people in the world with different needs. This is simple common sense; condemnation and annihilation in the name of religion is not. Creating self-imposed ghettos to keep self and religion "pure," while ignoring the rest of the world, is something reality doesn't easily allow. Living contrary to the natural law of universal brotherhood causes us to run into the open arms of holy wars, ethnic cleansing, etc. Hopefully for some of us who needed to catch it, the Parliament experience did teach common sense.

The means to achieving aims ought to be more important than merely attaining goals in whatever way possible. I think of the distinguished German theologian Paul Tillich, who remarked that the only ultimate truth is "the one that no one possesses." Perhaps we have begun to consciously realize that before we can ever hope to enlighten others, we must aim to heal our hearts with the light of altruism, dissolve the mundaneness within our minds, and truly believe our own words as we speak them. — Doreen Domb

While the hallway and elevator "parliaments," and those at mealtimes and at the co-sponsor booths in the Exhibit Hall, provided some of the richest and most meaningful exchanges, two aspects of the 1993 Parliament stand out in my mind as having positive significance for the future. One is epitomized by an incident at the TS/Theosophical University Press display where a theosophist said she was crushed to learn there was more than one Theosophical Society. How could a movement espousing universal brotherhood and the unity of all life be divided? Never was I so grateful as when able to reach for the blue "Theosophical Presentations" program on the table beside me and show her the listing of theosophical co-sponsors at the Parliament, representing the three main streams worldwide. These organizations, I added — though differing in structure, emphasis, approach, and in some teachings — share common objectives; and they had cooperated jointly to prepare and present this program. In this the movement had achieved a primary goal of any true parliament: a recognition of pluralism and diversity of approach, and — without seeking to forge organizational union — to set an example of how we may deepen our insight, and draw strength from the friendly exchange of viewpoints towards solving the universal problems.

There is an important place in human life for symbols of what is possible — and it is a pity that the news media did not include coverage of the Friday evening plenary rather than concentrate on the very few sectarian flare-ups earlier in the week. Entitled "The Next Generation" (and organized by a theosophist, Tony Lysy) this penultimate session was hosted and presented by youth from the many faith traditions at the Parliament. These children and young adults understand that sectarian differences need not divide humanity against itself, nor provide excuses for war, bigotry, or any other sort of inhumanity. If the world could have seen their final performance — over 100 representatives of the next generation from all traditions singing in harmony and in friendship for peace on earth and goodwill to all — what more impressive symbol and reminder could we have of what is possible? — Will Thackara

If religion is to help people understand the pain and suffering of life, why does it cause so much suffering? If religion is for the good of all mankind, why do some people use it as a way to inflict their viewpoint on others? If religion is supposed to bring people together as one, why do we use it as a way to divide ourselves? Why can't we respect other religions and dismiss the idea that me-and-mine is better than you-and-yours?

The 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions brought people together. It was wonderful to see leaders of all different religions coming together to share their unique treasures. One memorable presentation was "Self-transformation and the Future of Religion" by Radha Burnier. She felt that to make religions a more positive force, each religion must transform itself, so that instead of causing war it would lead to inner peace. People need to focus on the good of all humanity rather than on themselves and their own importance. We need to respect others' points of view, not judge and condemn them as evil or inferior to us.

This Parliament was a marvelous experience that has given me a whole new horizon to explore. — Jennifer Dougherty, age 11

I came to the Parliament with a desire to meet and connect with people from other cultures and religions. I thought I might even have the opportunity to capture the experience through an artist's perspective. Although I attended as an observer, meandering through the halls in pursuit of a multitude of stimulating sessions, I soon began to absorb and become part of the atmosphere of unity and brotherhood which pervaded this 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions.

In sessions given by Ma Jaya Bhagavati I observed people coming together in unity, sharing their innermost fears and questions about life and death. Ma Jaya Bhagavati received great joy in her life by the act of sharing her humor, warmth, and sensitive caring for the terminally ill.

I returned home with an ardent desire to maintain and further pursue the wisdom which I gained from spiritual leaders who were symbols of true devotion, purity, and selfless service. — Andrea Walsh

Every day for four days there was frenzied scurrying to over a hundred possible presentations, but each evening one large plenary was held for the entire assemblage. I watched Wednesday night's session on a huge video monitor in a near empty ballroom. Among the many speakers addressing the theme "The Inner Life and Life in the Community," three dedicated activists stood out as inspirational examples of the spirit of the Parliament.

Dr. George Cairnes, Reverend of the People's Church and affectionately known as Father George the Biker-Hoodlum-Priest, described his Urban Missionary Program in Chicago. He calls it a "Mission in Reverse" because he always tries to encourage the other person to be his teacher. He has no agenda other than to both help and learn. Rev. Cairnes is a Protestant (despite the priest moniker) but he carries Catholic rosaries and scriptures of many faiths in his briefcase. His vow is to help everyone he meets take their next step, whatever direction that needs to be — to AA or to Islam or to church.

S. N. Subba Rao, Head of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, enthusiastically described children's camps he is establishing all over India. Each evening the young people spend ten minutes sharing prayers from all the major religions, ending with the affirmation "All religions are one, all religions are mine." He called for a spiritual UN with a spiritual army armed with love, sacrifice, and faith in one another. Towards that end he is helping set up Harmony Councils to teach conflict prevention and resolution.

Juanita Batzibal, an anthropologist and President of the International Mayan League, came from Costa Rica to address the plenary. She left us with the proposal that we adopt an ancient Mayan greeting, "You are me and I am you." Perhaps, she suggested, we won't destroy each other if we learn to see ourselves in the other.

The evening plenaries often lasted till after 10 p.m. (making me one sleepy parliamentarian) but, though the body was tired, after hearing such inspirational addresses, the soul was refreshed. — Nancy Coker

The warmth and cooperation of the many participants at the Parliament, the sincerity and spirituality of the hundreds of speakers who shared their concern and offered solutions to present-day troubles, were deeply moving.

Beneath the differences of long traditions, of dialects, complexion, and costume — of saris, tunics, robes, insignia, or headdress worn by some of the American Indians, sects of Buddhists, Taoists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Christians, Pagans, and others — one conviction shone through: that we, as individuals, have within ourselves the power and ability to solve the world's problems. If we do what is right within our circle of friends and community, right will be reflected throughout the social, economic, and environmental spheres of the world.

Opportunities beckon. The floods of disaster and heartache can be diverted, can be transformed, if we each put the well-being of others ahead of our own.

Isn't this the answer we find in our hearts when we pause and consider the purpose of our life; what we have learned that's worth preserving; and what we can do to better our lives? As part of the whole, our very existence depends on the harmony and well-being of every other being.

The miracle of the ages can come about — not a descent of a messiah, but the ascent from our midst of spiritual power that will unite us together in peace, respect, and in determination that now and forevermore we will work to benefit one another. — Eloise Hart

When I arrived back in Los Angeles from our trip, I wanted to make a T-shirt that read, "I survived the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions." When you're handed a catalogue of events in Chicago which looks like a large paperback book and runs 150 pages, you feel like you need to lace up your Reeboks. I came to this Parliament to help videotape the eleven joint sessions conducted by the three major theosophical organizations. I worked on this project with Steve Schweitzer of the Theosophical Society in America. Our two cameras multiplied into four cameras with the help of several sturdy volunteers. We not only taped the joint theosophical sessions, and talks by Grace F. Knoche and Radha Burnier, we also recorded some of the plenary events. Those plenaries brought everyone at the Parliament together in order to focus, inspire, and help give purpose to the event.

Part of my time was spent coordinating with Steve and others how to videotape the events, where to have the cameras set up, and sometimes making sure that we just made it to a session, when we had just finished a previous one. I felt like a resident Lipika (scribe, recorder) on an assignment, so that those who weren't able to attend would be able to view the events later, rather than just being a participant. So what I experienced was obviously set by my commitments. And, since these commitments included recording some of the plenaries, I had one of the best seats in the house.

Many speeches were given sincerely, and a few were eloquent. The plenaries were attempts to help everyone understand their particular faith as part of a family of faiths — a forum where each one had the same opportunity to tell his/her story as did everyone else. One such speech I will probably remember the most came from a Native American Indian. He said his son was very concerned that he would go in front of all those people from around the world and say something that would embarrass his tribe. Native Americans had not been invited to the first Parliament in 1893. And this man won the crowd over as he talked mostly about his children, concern for their future, so uncertain, of what many adults were doing to the land, the sky, the water, to the very fabric of the earth's spirit. His talk and his story were intelligent without being sophisticated — it came from his heart, as well as his mind. American Indians later showed their brotherhood in action when, after a Sikh and Hindu altercation in the Grand Ballroom, they formed a circle of song and dance as a sign of unity and protection. Great stuff, yet one of the few plenaries we did not videotape!

I enjoyed the plethora of poetry, dance, and song from people all around the world. I will especially remember a Tai Chi instructor who turned a whole plenary into a Tai Chi lesson, and still got the message of the plenary itself across. The reconstruction of an Aztec dance by a woman who wore enormous feathers almost as tall as she was, and two Irish girls who danced a syncopated rhythm I wouldn't force on my worst enemy (if I had one) were quite vivid.

After working 9 to 12 hours a day behind a camera for eight days, I came home . . . and took a week off to recuperate from my vacation! I also listened to some cassettes of Parliament lectures I wasn't able to attend. I haven't finished listening to them all, so the Parliament, for me, is still in progress. — Brett Forray

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1993; copyright © 1993 Theosophical University Press)

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